Mark continues to tell stories of Jesus’ healings, today of a ‘leper’, one whose illness exiles him from normal society. This healing shows not only a physical cure, but of the associated psychological suffering and emphases the human need to ‘belong’ to a community.
Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46
This reading has background for today’s gospel. Leviticus, the third book of the ‘Torah’ or ‘Pentateuch’, is largely taken up with detailed moral and ritual matters the Jews were to observe. ‘Leprosy’ has been long been feared and societies up to recent times have used isolation to prevent further contagion. (The modern medical name is ‘Hansen’s Disease’ and it can now be treated by the drug sulfone.) For the Jewish people, the Hebrew word could mean a number of skin conditions, some of which might be cured, or would disappear in time. People would be kept away unless there was a change, so provision was for those temporary cases. The complex and rather confusing regulations are spelled out in chapters 13-14 of Leviticus. They provided that the sufferer could be re-admitted to society once the absence of symptoms was verified by a priest. The person was then to offer a sacrifice in thanksgiving. ‘Outside the camp’ – these words in our selection show that this regulation went back to the time when the Jewish people were nomadic wanderings before settling in the land that became Israel.
Psalm 31:1-2, 2:5, 11
The psalm response might be applied to one healed of leprosy – which like other misfortunes often was (and sometimes still is) thought to be a punishment for sin. But it has a more universal application, and is one easily adopted by a Christian who has confessed wrong-doing – whether in personal prayer or in the sacrament of reconciliation – and rejoices in the sense of being forgiven.
1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1
The background in the Corinthian community to these words of Paul was an issue that arose among the new Christians about buying and eating food that had been sacrificed to idols. Some converts understood that these ‘gods’ were powerless and saw no harm in making use of the food, while others believed eating it was taking part in the pagan religions. Paul, while agreeing there is nothing the idols can do to contaminate food, is at pains to protect the conscience of those who are ‘weaker’. His concern is that all avoid upsetting fellow Christians by behaviour which even if innocent can be a source of scandal or even sin for others. This is something that can be applied in various circumstances at any time: be aware of behaviour that upsets others.
A second message for us is a more general application: to understand than everything in daily life we do – eating or not eating is just one example – can be offered to God. Paul’s advice also serves as a warning against judging others.
This follows immediately in the Gospel after last week’s reading in which Jesus, after praying alone, sets out with the disciples to extend his preaching. This intent was to be quickly frustrated by excessive reactions to his healing. Lepers were supposed to stay away from healthy people –as in the Leviticus regulations – and the present setting in Mark could indicate that the man encountered Jesus as he was leaving the ‘desert place’ where he had gone to pray.
The leper shows great faith in Jesus’ power. There has been no hint of how he came to know about Jesus and form such a conclusion; presumably the spreading of the word throughout Galilee (Mark 1:39) had reached him even though he had to stay on the margins of society. He is actually breaking the Law by approaching Jesus, and this may be an equal act of faith: believing Jesus will not be offended. Notice the delicacy and humility of his request. Jesus is deeply touched by his condition and his faith – the Greek word means a feeling in the very depths of the body, and ‘feeling sorry for’ in our reading sounds much weaker now. ‘Deep compassion’ (‘feeling with’) is better for that level of emotion. Jesus breaks the taboo by touching the leper; The leper considered ‘untouchable’ may have found that action healing in itself.
There is a dramatic reversal: instead of Jesus being made ‘unclean’ by the touch, the leper is made ‘clean’ or healed. (The language of ‘clean/unclean’ comes from conditions or behaviours thought unsuitable in temple worship and sometimes in society – it was not a moral judgement of good/bad.)
Next there seems a change in Jesus’ mood as he ‘sternly’ gives the ex-leper the order not talk about his healing, but go immediately to a priest who will verify the change in his condition. This proof would have been important for the man’s return to community life, but why the command to silence? The clue may be in what happens: by the former leper telling everyone he can that Jesus has healed a seemingly incurable illness, the people are so excited that crowds come wanting to see a miracle. Such a mob scene makes it impossible for Jesus to preach the call to conversion and accepting the Dominion/Kingdom of God that will change their lives in an even more basic way than physical healing.
Jesus speaks of the command ‘of Moses’, while in Leviticus, it is described as the command that came to Moses from God. It is not certain why this change is mentioned, but Jesus, who will uphold some of the old Law and change other parts, here may be indicating that the rules in Leviticus about lepers were more a human concern for safety than about God’s continual love and care for the unfortunate.
Christians, following Jesus’ example of compassion, have over years cared for lepers, and I personally am devoted to two saints, Fr Damien and Sr Marianne Cope, who worked with those exiled to Molokai, in Hawaii where I used to live.